IEPs: Advocate for Your Child’s Education

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Dont let your childs learning difficulty keep him from doing his best. Individual education plans (IEPs) help to ensure he gets what he needs.

fea_child.gifThere are now more than 5 million children in the United States with disabilities. If you are the parent of one of those children, efforts to meet your child’s educational needs can be filled with pain, frustration and confusion. But there are resources available to help you understand special education law, identify your child’s needs, prepare for meetings with school staff, and develop an individual education plan (IEP) to help him in school. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions once the need for an IEP has been established (any parent can inquire about an IEP for his child).

What’s an individual education plan (IEP)?

“An IEP is a plan for children who have been identified as eligible for special education,” says Lawrence Siegel, author of The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child (Nolo Press; $34.99) and director of the National Deaf Education Project. “That is, they have a qualifying level of disability that entitles them to have an individualized program tailored to meet their unique needs.” After a student is determined to be eligible under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by an admissions and release committee (ARC), a process begins by team effort to formulate a plan specific to the educational needs of a student. The determination for eligibility is based upon physical and/or emotional evidence that has an adverse effect upon the student’s ability to learn.

What should the major elements of an IEP be?

“It should include an individualized look at the child, including his needs and how he can be served,” says Siegel. “The basic concept is that the child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education.” Appropriate is the key word, he explains, adding that the program has to include a specific development of goals and objectives, necessary related services, and how they are to be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

How does a parent work with school staff to develop a meaningful IEP?

Since parents are the most knowledgeable about their child, their input is extremely valuable in the team effort. Parents should endeavor to speak up if they don’t understand something or if they object to a suggestion, but should also keep in mind that the team has gathered for the benefit of the child.

The parent should be the child’s best advocate, and should become knowledgeable about the law, says Siegel, advising parents to organize their records in a single binder. “Once parents have a good idea of what the child’s needs are and have looked at the assessments on their child, they should develop a program they think would be appropriate as a starting pint. Not what the school district has to offer, not what’s necessarily practical, but something to start with.”

Should parents bring an advocate or pediatrician with them to an IEP meeting?

It’s not necessary unless a concern with your team members makes you feel it is. The IEP meetings are times when you, teachers, administrators and experts gather to prepare an educational plan that will alleviate your concerns and provide a better school process for your child. It can be helpful to take along an objective person who can take notes and provide input and support when needed. If you do feel an advocate is necessary in addressing an injustice or miscommunication, be sure he is familiar with IDEA. A true advocate is not caught up in seeking legal remedies to violations, but is there to “fix” the differences, Siegel says.

What should parents know before attending an IEP meeting?

“Parents should know what the law says about the IEP process,” says Siegel, (see wrightslaw.com – the leading Web site about special education law and advocacy) “about assessment and about all the due process rights. The district has an affirmative duty to provide that information to the parents. The district has the responsibility to provide parents not only with an explanation of their rights, but also a list of no-cost/low-cost special ed support services.”

Who should be at the IEP meeting?

“By law, the parent or the guardian and the child (if the parent feels it is appropriate) can attend,” says Siegel, adding that law also requires there to be someone who represents the district and who has the authority to make decisions, whether the child’s teacher or a regular education teacher – this group is the ARC.

How does a parent ensure that the goals for the IEP are individualized and not a fill-in-the-blanks type of school blueprint?

The goals, interventions, accommodations and services written into an IEP to provide a student with specially designed instruction must be unique to the child’s educational needs and not a template of any other child with similar characteristics. The plan should contain every resource possible to ensure that the child will make educational progress. Siegel says an IEP is not “an absolute science” and usually needs revising from time to time, but that any adjustments must be made by the team.

Who is accountable for the IEP?

“An IEP is legally binding,” says Siegel. “If a district does not follow through on what it has signed off on, it can be ordered to do so, be punished or fined money, but there’s absolutely no guarantee under the law that the child will achieve at a certain level.” If the district says your child needs speech therapy, and you feel your child needs at least two-and-a-half hours a week in a group of no more than three other children broken down into time elements of 30 minutes, unless that is specifically outlined, exact times would be subject to interpretation.

What if the school does not have the resources to provide the program?

Although this doesn’t happen often, it can happen. Public school districts receive federal funding for the implementation of IDEA. To report their inability to meet the needs of a special needs student identified under IDEA could place that funding in jeopardy for all students. In that regard, school districts generally take it upon themselves to seek out all available resources in order to satisfy their commitment and compliance.

What is the best example of an IEP you’ve seen? What is the worst?

“The most important things in a child’s education are the classroom setting, the related services, the methodology that will be used for that child, the strategies and the peers,” says Siegel. “These get lost in an overly technical IEP. We lose the kid. A detailed, carefully crafted, individualized IEP reflects the team’s discussion and understanding of that child’s individualized needs and is written up in a way that’s clear. The worst IEP is one in which the school is not putting down what the parents are saying, but only recording what the school wants. It’s loaded down with numbers and goals, and again the child is lost in the process.”

How do you advise parents on becoming their child’s advocate?

Teachers are overworked and underpaid, says Seigel, adding that it’s important for parents to remember that most teachers try their best. He suggests that parents set up a reasonable process for reporting whether things are working. “For example, if the IEP states that a child’s teacher will send home a weekly progress report regarding certain areas, parents should – without becoming overbearing either for the class, the teacher or their child – visit the class on a reasonable basis.”

Carol Brzozowski is a freelance writer.

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